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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Wesley hymn explores scene of the crucifixion C. Michael Hawn, Mar 22, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done” Charles Wesley UM Hymnal, No. 287
O Love divine, what hast thou done! The immortal God hath died for me! The Father’s coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree. The immortal God for me hath died: My Lord, my Love, is crucified!
Time stops in pure contemplation when reflecting on this hymn. The emotional intensity is almost overwhelming. The gripping opening line (incipit) is essentially a rhetorical question. However, the punctuation is not a question mark but an exclamation point. Why? Because from the outset is it apparent that Charles Wesley (1707-1788) is expressing the inexpressible, comprehending the incomprehensible, reflecting upon the unfathomable.
Following immediately upon the opening line is a stunning paradox: “The immortal God hath died for me!” The concept is so overwhelming that the poet turns to the device of tautology—repeating the supreme paradox of our faith three more times, each different from the first!
The third line draws upon an important and at times controversial theological concept: Is the Son coeternal with the Father? Charles Wesley’s “high” Christology indicates unequivocally that the Son and the Father are one.
Drawing upon John 1, theologians support this position: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. All things were created through him, and nothing that was made was made without him. And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 3, 14)
Aspects of this language influenced the Nicene Creed in the fourth century:
[I believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.
The “begotteness” of the Son does not focus on coeternal only in the sense of time; being “begotten from the Father” is a language of relationship: the Son and the Father are inseparable. Thus in this hymn Charles Wesley invites us to comprehend our complicity in the crucifixion of God the Son.
The first stanza is framed by the word “Love,” placed in the upper case as a synonym for the pure essence of the One who is dying in humility. Note that Wesley does not say, “My Lord, my Love, was crucified!” Time collapses at this moment leaving only the eternal present tense. Wesley invites us to join John and Mary at the foot of the cross in the very moment of the crucifixion. He does not give us the luxury of distancing ourselves from the death of God the Son by resorting to the past tense—a historical memorial.
The intensity does not abate in the second stanza. Ending the first stanza with “crucified,” he immediately repeats the word at the beginning of the second stanza. The uncomfortable first-person perspective continues—“for me and you.” We are “rebels” that Christ is bringing “back to God.”
The second stanza introduces “blood” into our raw imagination—a concept that is inescapable when contemplating the crucifixion, yet one that many Christians insist on avoiding today. I am sure that Charles Wesley knew Isaac Watts’ famous third stanza of the great hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (1707):
See, from his head, his hands, his feet Sorrow and blood flow mingled down.
Writing 35 years later, Wesley records a similar vision:
Believe, believe the record true, ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood. Pardon for all flows from his side: My Lord, my Love, is crucified!
This is not a gratuitous focus on a gory scene, however. This is a vision of “pardon for all.”
The final stanza draws from the famous Good Friday passage, Lamentations 1:12a: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”
This hymn first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1742). The refrain that closes each stanza is a phrase that Charles Wesley probably learned from other sources. Methodist hymnologist Fred Gealy suggests that the refrain actually quotes St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans: “amor meus crucifixus est” (“My love is crucified”). In addition, 17th-century hymn writer John Mason has a similar phrase in his Spiritual Songs (1683): “My Lord, my Love was crucified.” As mentioned above, the present tense used by Wesley heightens the intensity and places the singer at the foot of the cross.
Charles Wesley’s hymns often needed judicious editing, a task that his brother John frequently performed. The fifth line of the third stanza—“Come, feel with me his blood applied”—originally read, “Come see, Ye worms, Your Maker die.” John reigned in just a bit the emotional outpouring of his younger brother.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.